Monday musings on Australian literature: Local colour, 1920-style

Back in June I wrote a post on the Australian Literature Society’s Women’s Night that they held in 1922. This Society, which was formed in Melbourne in 1899, has played an important role in supporting and promoting Australian literature for well over a century – first as itself, and then as part of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) with which it merged in 1982. As I’ve written before, ASAL continues to award the ALS Gold Medal which was established by the Society in 1928.

Now, I had in fact planned a different post for today, but I have had a busy weekend, and am still away from home, so have not had the time to work on that post. I therefore thought I would share another one of the delightful snippets I found some months ago about about the work of the society. The wonderful thing is, you see, that this Society’s meetings were often written up in the newspapers of the day, which provides us with an interesting insight into what the literati of the time were thinking and caring about.

And, one of those things was what made “Australian” literature. In 1920, Melbourne’s The Herald (July 10), reported on the meeting that marked the Society’s attaining “its majority”. That is, it turned 21! The meeting’s topic was “Local Color in Women’s Work”, with a paper was presented by Mrs Hilda Vroland. She argued that Australia’s women writers “did not portray very vividly those features of our life which were distinctive”. The report went on to explain what she saw as local color:

What was meant by local color was certain incidents, scenes and language which were characteristic of a particular country, and not only that, but a portrayal of an outlook on life which was typical of the class of people dealt with. Our local color was derived from incidents which immediately suggested Australian life — scenes that were truly Australian, and traits of character which had been developed by the freedom of this new land and the broader outlook.

Mrs Vroland named some writers whom she thought did produce good local colour – Doris Egerton Jones, Marie Pitt and Mary Gaunt (the last of whom Brona of Brona’s Books wrote about for the new AWW). Brona notes that some of Gaunt’s attitudes are problematical now, but nonetheless,

her short stories show a writer concerned with the role of women in society. Mary’s privileged colonial upbringing may be apparent in her writing at times, but her focus was clearly on how double standards, lack of agency and patriarchal practices negatively impacted on the lives of women.

Sounds like excellent local color to me …

Anyhow, the poet and journalist Bernard O’Dowd, who presided over the meeting, clearly agreed with the importance of Hilda Vroland’s subject, arguing that

Australians had as much right to see the universe in our honeysuckle and wattle blossom or even in the opossum’s burrow as the Englishman had to see his world in the oak-tree.

Furthermore, he was concerned, said The Herald, that Australian literature was not valued unless it “received the hallmark of the English papers”. (The old cultural cringe.) Local journals, he apparently said, “dealt almost exclusively with American literature, and ignored Australian writers”. Another speaker at the meeting, a Charles Carter, is reported as having “said that he “was gratified to know that the women writers quoted did not wholly rely upon the use of slang, horse-racing or bush-ranging for local color”. According to Brona, Mary Gaunt’s stories did include bush-ranging, among other topics. But was Carter being sexist about what “women” writers should write about, or simply complimenting them because these were not truly local color?

I will close here … and simply say that I enjoyed reading about the passion of these Australians for our own literature, even if (not surprisingly) the idea of First Nations people contributing to that literature doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds. I hope you all have enjoyed this little insight too.

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Local colour, 1920-style

  1. Carter was rather – I think – reacting to the (Sydney) Bulletin school, who were a) ferociously critical of Melbourne writers; and b) who promoted excessive bush ‘realism’ as the only true Australian culture.

    Interestingly, I think Catherine Spence had also complained about Australia being represented by shearers and bushrangers as much as 70 years earlier.

  2. I think the report was onto something in that reference to ‘traits of character which had been developed by the freedom of this new land and the broader outlook’. Many writers were interested in the social climate that produced a progressive society that was of interest around the world. The currency lads and lasses and their offspring who were not hidebound by class and ‘old money’; the women who fought for and achieved the right to vote and so on.

    Of course Australia wasn’t perfect. I’d love to read a novel that tackled the White Australia policy. But I’m with Clare Wright when she says that we should be more proud of the progressive reforms of the early C20th than we are.

  3. Maybe the information is out there and I just haven’t looked for it, but I wonder if people in the U.S. try as hard as Australians to define what American literature is, what are the characteristics or themes, etc. Perhaps if I looked back closer to the founding of the U.S. when there were so many immigrants I would find some lively debate.

    • Interesting question Melanie. I hadn’t thought about that. It may be that because of our cultural cringe there’s always been this tension between reliance on “the old country” and defining ourselves. The US, perhaps, started off more confidently itself?

      • Ooooh, I’m not sure. There’s lots of cringe in our past, too, but we can’t even collectively agree it’s cringey. That’s a rough starting place. Typically, we have movements (modernism, post-modernism) that comment on what’s going on, but none of it feels particularly American to me. That being said, I’m not sure what I would compare American Lit to so I could say, “This seems American, and this does not.” Maybe any book that includes gun culture, poor work conditions, and crummy healthcare support would be totally American.

        • Oh dear Melanie, I guess maybe that subject matter does … certainly content is a big part of it, but perhaps values are too? Success focus? Freedom? Individualism? Pioneering attitudes? When it comes to style and form I’m a bit fuzzier but American spareness, like Australian, is perhaps more landscape-driven than that of some literatures?

        • OH! Yes, individualism and pioneering are great ones. I didn’t even think about/realize I live in an individualistic society until I took a Deaf Culture class and realized they are collectivists.

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